Somalia: New U.S. Moves Ill-Advised, Counter-Productive

26 December 2008
guest column

The last-minute attempt by the Bush administration to force through a United Nations Security Council resolution authorizing a new peacekeeping mission in Somalia is both ill-advised and counterproductive.

During two meetings on Somalia last week in New York — one of the Security Council and one of the International Contact Group on Somalia — the United States Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, stepped up pressure on governments to support  a new UN peacekeeping force in Somalia by the end of the year.

Two years ago this month, Ethiopian armed forces – with the backing of the United States – invaded Somalia, drove the Union of Islamic Courts out of Mogadishu and south-central Somalia, and provided protection to a weak Transitional Federal Government (TFG).

Since then the Ethiopian occupation, coupled with U.S. counter-terror strikes against targets in Somalia, has resulted in a tremendous backlash against the occupiers, horrific violence, and fervent anti-Americanism. It has also provided ample recruiting material for domestic Islamic fighters and drawn more jihadists from abroad to the front in Somalia. The U.S.-Ethiopian agenda has fanned the very extremist flames it intended to extinguish.

Late last month, Ethiopian forces — recognizing considerable military losses and exasperated by continuous TFG infighting — signaled their intent to withdraw by the end of 2008. Thus, the semblance of a government they have been propping up is on the brink of total collapse.

As the Ethiopians prepare to leave, the Bush administration has lobbied hard for a UN force to replace the current AU force, in a last-ditch effort to salvage the government and prevent Islamic groups from re-asserting control in Mogadishu. There are a number of problems with this rationale.

First, the introduction of such a UN force would serve only to bolster extremist groups and mobilize them against a new target. Islamist insurgents, including Al-Shabaab, Somalia’s most formidable Islamist militia, control a considerable amount of the country’s territory. Among their primary objectives is to rid the country of Ethiopian occupiers. This is both the common agenda around which they coalesced and the source of their legitimacy among Somalis.

A new UN peacekeeping force could similarly produce a united front among the otherwise fractious opposition, as well as fuel recruitment. Because some elements of the Islamist opposition have gained funding, weapons and training support from outside the country, introducing a new force would unnecessarily raise the stakes and minimize the focus on a sustainable national solution based on the needs of Somalia.

Second, the Islamist insurgents have so far remained outside the Djibouti peace process. There is thus little prospect of a sustainable and inclusive ceasefire between them and the TFG forces. UN peacekeepers would have neither the military capability nor the mandate necessary to fight an ongoing war. And as the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations has argued, peacekeeping will be effective in Somalia only when it supports a sustainable ceasefire and a credible political process.

There are also no takers for a peacekeeping operation at the moment. Troop contributions have been sought for months, first to fill huge gaps in the African Union force, and later to join a theoretical “international stabilization force” with more robust peace enforcement capabilities. Efforts on both fronts have produced next to nothing. There is no political will to send troops to Somalia in the current atmosphere of violence and lawlessness. Thus, rushing to authorize a new UN force in the absence of a viable peace process would be an empty gesture.

Third, the TFG has been considerably weakened and its reform agenda is beyond rescue. Even President Yusuf — himself a warlord and a polarizing authoritarian — has declared that the government has collapsed. Last Sunday, after months of infighting, he tried to fire Prime Minister Nur Hassan Hussein, which he has no authority to do under the transitional constitution. This crumbling charade of a government has no credibility among the Somali people and has only survived in an internationally-supported bubble.

Instead of trying to force ill-conceived and hasty measures through the Security Council, the United States and the international community need to back a new TFG leadership that will radically change course and adopt a new roadmap for peace.

Security Council members should proceed cautiously, noting a clear split on peacekeeping policy between branches of the U.S. government – which could be a symptom of policy breaking down in an outgoing administration. It is irresponsible for the Bush team to make a major policy move in its final days, which will only handcuff the incoming administration and limit its policy options in the wake of Ethiopian withdrawal.

As Ethiopia retreats, the international community and the UN should broaden political dialogue to include the leaders of the Islamist groups.

Opposition to the Ethiopian occupation was the uniting factor among the fractious elements of the Islamist insurgency. When that factor is removed from the equation, and there are no new foreign occupiers against whom to unite, a window of opportunity may open for a more genuine intra-Somali dialogue. Introduction of a UN force may be advisable after re-energized, and inclusive, talks yield both a sustainable ceasefire and a credible political settlement. Peacekeepers cannot, and should not, be sent to solve a political problem.

Fabienne Hara is vice president for multilateral affairs, and Zachary Vertin a UN analyst, at the International Crisis Group.

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